Blame all our brains – or just respect them

Interesting question to me from a parent on Twitter. I don’t know her name but let’s call her Ann. She’s given me permission to answer here.

Her question:

I have an unusually logical teen, who struggles to understand more emotional peers. A friend also has a teen girl, recommended Blame My Brain & my teen is enjoying it, but wants to know why others can’t suppress their amygdala dominance??

I replied (slightly getting the wrong end of the twig):

It’s entirely human to be dominated by limbic system/amygdala. It’s supremely motivating and important. It is like an accelerator and the pfc is like a brake.

To which Ann replied:

Oh! Thank you very much for replying. So my teen’s brain has the brake on? She’s not been assessed for Asperger’s or autism, but is currently finding understanding some emotions very difficult. ? She even thinks it’s strange if I smile every time I’m happy.

I don’t know anything about Ann’s daughter and I certainly am not in a position to think about whether she might or might not have Asperger’s or autism. But let me outline some general ideas that might throw light.

The first point Ann asks about is to do with control/reason/logic versus emotions.

Everyone has two major areas of the brain that are active any time we make decisions (which is pretty much all the time). The Limbic system makes us want or reject a particular thing or action. So, we see a chocolate biscuit and we are drawn towards it; we smell a disgusting smell and we reject it. These instinctual drives are extremely important in firing us towards or away from any action, positive or negative. Immediately after the emotional urge, the prefrontal cortex (pfc) kicks in, helping us work out whether to act on our emotion or not.

For example, on being tempted by the chocolate biscuit (using our Limbic system), we might think (using our pfc) that perhaps we should control that desire and not eat the biscuit because we’ve already eaten two and we feel that’s enough. We are looking ahead and trying to make what is the right decision, based on knowledge, logic and control.

The pfc is our control centre. It allows us (but often with difficulty and often fails) to:

  • Be rational and sensible
  • Make decisions based on adding up risk and right/wrong, including predicting possible outcomes
  • Understand our emotions for what they are and why they’re there
  • Control our emotions so that they remain within reasonable boundaries and serve us well rather than messing us around
  • Put things in perspective
  • Look ahead

The pfc is not fully developed in teenagers. It doesn’t fully develop until well into the 20s.

But everyone is a bit different. Some teenagers (and adults) find it easier to have that control. Here are some differences that are relevant to how your pfc works:

  • You might have a very stressful life with masses of pressures: everyone’s pfc works less well when stressed and overwhelmed by pressures
  • You might have very positive or negative influences in your peer group
  • You might have very positive or negative role models amongst the adults around you
  • Early childhood trauma or neglect can make it harder for your pfc to take control and can make you much more vulnerable to stress and emotional ups and downs
  • You might just be a more emotional person or someone who tends to show emotions easily
  • Or you might be someone who has an extra need for control and routine, so you make sure those things are there for you – this would include people with Asperger’s, but not only those people
  • Your adolescent brain might be developing a bit earlier or a bit later than the people around you
  • Depression can damp down the emotions so that you stop feeling things as strongly (and it can also do the opposite, of course)

When I said “It’s entirely human to be dominated by limbic system/amygdala. It’s supremely motivating and important. It is like an accelerator and the pfc is like a brake,” I meant this:

Although we humans like to think we are rational creatures and although adults like to think we are more rational and controlled than average teenagers, this is a misunderstanding. (Many teenagers are much more controlled than many adults!) Almost all humans of all ages are dominated by emotions, in the sense that our emotion comes first and is followed by our pfc, but that very often our pfc fails to give us the control that we want. That’s why we often do things we wish we hadn’t, or have one chocolate biscuit more than we planned, or speak aggressively to someone when we didn’t really want to.

But there are things about teenage brains and teenage lives that make it harder for the average teenager than for the average adult. They have more excuse when things go wrong! (That’s largely what Blame My Brain is about.)

So, Ann’s daughter is somewhat unusual in not feeling these strong emotions and seeming to be in good control but this doesn’t mean something is wrong with her. Yes, her brain has a stronger brake than many other people’s. It could be seen as just something about her. She’s lucky! But she will need to learn to understand that others do feel emotions strongly and that they and she are just displaying different types of human behaviour: less or more controlled.

I feel that Ann’s daughter might like to read some teenage fiction with an emotional content so that she can start to learn what it’s like inside the heads of people who are different from her (as well as people who are the same as her). That’s what stories do: show us inside other people’s heads. If she doesn’t want to, that’s fine, but I think she will find it useful and interesting. She will especially find it useful when she joins new environments, whether a new school or college or a job later on. Even very self-sufficient people need to be able to make friends and we can’t do that easily if we can’t relate to how others are feeling.

We can never know entirely what someone else is feeling. And it’s very important that none of us think we know what’s in someone else’s head just because that’s what’s in our head or even because that’s what’s in most people’s heads. One of the most important things we should learn as teenagers is that everyone is different and what’s in my head is as valid and real as what’s in yours. Empathy doesn’t mean feeling the same as someone else: it means knowing that someone else might well be feeling something entirely different but that these are the signs and clues that something like this is what they are feeling.

We learn this by practice, by reading stories and by listening to people.

Ann’s daughter might be interested in the book Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin. The author is autistic but that’s not to say I think Ann’s daughter is as I have no idea! It’s about how Grandin used her skills of observation to read animals’ minds. It’s a fascinating and heart-warming book and is really a breakdown of how we can learn to listen to each other, too.

Ann, thanks for contacting me on Twitter! I hope your daughter continues to enjoy Blame My Brain!

 

 

 

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